It’s not too late to enjoy a productive bow hunt. In fact, some of the Midwest’s best archery hunting takes place in December and January.
Weather, available food sources, and what I call 11th-hour rutting activity play an important roll in late-season bow hunting success. The whitetail rut doesn’t start and stop neatly like a horse race. Instead the rut begins slowly, picks up momentum, peaks, and then slowly spirals to an end. The entire process takes nearly eight weeks to run full circle.
Mother Nature insures that a maximum number of does are successfully bred, by seeing to it that different age classes of deer come into estrus at different times. Generally speaking the older and more mature does come into estrus first, followed by yearling does, and finally by doe fawns who only a few months earlier wore a spotted coat.
When a doe comes into heat, her estrus cycle lasts for only 24 hours. If she is not bred during this period, the doe will experience a second estrus cycle 28 days later. Does that aren’t bred during their first estrus cycle and doe fawns that come into estrus much later in the fall cause the rut or annual breeding cycle to stretch well into December.
Breeding age bucks are constantly on the move during the peak of the rut, making themselves highly vulnerable to hunting pressure. Rutting activity is more of an “on again/off again” situation during the late season.
Once the majority of fertile does have been bred or passed their estrus cycle, attending bucks return to their normal recluse ways. Daylight finds these animals bedded or wandering in heavy cover. Just before dark, bachelor groups of bucks venture into grass meadows, corn, or clover fields to feed.
However, the moment another doe comes into heat, the breeding circus and competition associated with early November starts all over again. This spontaneous breeding activity is impossible to predict but nonetheless makes for challenging and exciting late-season hunting.
Sporadic rutting activity and light hunting pressure add up to ideal hunting conditions. When the weather cooperates, late-season hunting becomes a rare treat.
THE WEATHER IS A MAJOR FACTOR influencing late-season hunting success. Bitter cold, blowing snow, and winterlike conditions stop deer movement faster than a rifle slug and makes for miserable hunting conditions. Fortunately, early winter weather is characterized by periodic warm fronts that cause daytime temperatures to creep into the 40s.
Concentrate your hunting during fair-weather periods when whitetails are likely to make a beeline for feeding areas an hour or so before dark. Bow hunters have the best chance of intercepting these animals as they move along trails leading to the feeding areas.
Weather also influences the harvest of key crops like corn. Wet ground often forces farmers to leave their crop in the field until the ground freezes solid. Standing corn provides a bonanza of cover and food for whitetail deer and the ideal ambush site for hunters.
Picked corn fields may also attract deer so long as there’s a supply of waste grain to feed on. The best fields are those that have been harvested with a corn picker that leaves some stubble standing and plenty of waste grain spilled on the ground. Deer quickly abandon fields worked with a plow, chisel plow, or disk after harvesting. Concentrate on standing corn and picked fields that offer lots of waste grain.
Alfalfa, clover, and winter wheat fields also attract deer. A little scouting will quickly determine which fields deer are using.
I SCOUT FOR PRODUCTIVE HUNTING lands by cruising farm roads near dark and glassing for deer feeding in fields or moving from forest cover into standing corn. Once I’ve located a field that’s attracting whitetails, I contact the landowner to secure hunting permission.
Getting permission to hunt is easier than you might think during the late season. Perhaps archery hunters are less threatening than firearm hunters or maybe farmers feel sorry for a hunter still trying to bag a buck this late in the season. Whatever the reason, acquiring hunting permission is seldom a problem.
With hunting permission secured, I return to the fields that held deer for a brief scouting trip. My goals are to determine exactly where deer access feeding fields and to pinpoint likely ambush sites for a treestand.
Avoid hiking in and around nearby bedding cover. Bedding areas in farm country are typically small woodlots and swamps. Any human activity in or near these deer havens is likely to spook the animals and force them into a different daily feeding pattern.
When a suitable stand site is located, I make plans to return for an evening hunt the following afternoon. Since late-season hunts tend to be an all or nothing affair, I prefer a climber or ladder stand that’s easy to set up and remove quickly.
EVENINGS ARE PRIME TIME to hunt for post-rut bucks. Deer stick to heavy cover until just before dark during the late season. Does and fawns start appearing around a hour before dark and bucks frequently show themselves just minutes before shooting light fades.
If a hot doe appears on the scene, bucks are likely to turn up at any time of day. While in estrus a doe is 300 times more active than normal. The wanderings of a hot doe lures bucks from their daytime haunts and makes these animals especially vulnerable.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict when does will go into estrus. The rule of thumb I live by is to spend as much time in the field as possible.
Good clothing is the only thing between an enjoyable and productive late-season hunt and a cold, miserable experience. Even when the weather yields mild daytime temperatures, a biting cold normally sets in as the sun sets.
My late-season bow hunting clothing begins with a Thermax turtleneck top and heavy-weight long johns. On top of this, I add a Worsterlon or Chamois shirt and heavy-weight wool pants. The next layer is a polar fleece jacket and I cover this all up with a camouflage two-piece fleece/Dry-Plus lined parka and bibs.
Completing the outfit, I wear insulated knee-high rubber boots, an insulated Radar-style cap, Spando-Flage face mask, and wool gloves with rubber grippers on the fingers and palms.
So dressed I can move and draw my bow freely, yet I remain protected from the biting wind and cold. I highly recommend an outer garment that combines a quiet material like fleece, wool, or Worsterlon with a windproof/waterproof barrier like Gore-Tex or Dry-Plus.
COLD WEATHER WREAKS HAVOC on bow hunters, bows, and bow hunting accessories. For starters, a bow weight that was easy to draw and shoot in October can be almost impossible to break over when you’re cold and stiff as a slab of beef.
I normally pull 80 pounds with my Mountaineer Ultra Cam, but in cold weather I back off the draw weight to 70 pounds. The lighter draw weight costs me a few feet per second on arrow speed, but the ease with which I can draw and shoot in cold weather more than makes up for this loss.
Late season is an excellent time to hunt with a crossbow. The design of crossbows like the popular Horton Super Mag, Bear Devastator, or Barnett RC-300 makes it easier for the hunter to hold, aim, and shoot accurately while bundled up in bulky clothing. Check you state regulations before hunting with a crossbow.
Batteries and the lighted fiber optic sight pins they power are another causality of cold weather. Freezing temperatures can zap the steam from batteries within minutes, leaving the hunter without a lighted pin at prime time.
To conserve battery power, I make it a point to leave my sight pin off until deer are spotted . Hunters may also choose sight pins that glow by collecting available ambient light.
Red Dot scopes can also be easily fitted to compound bows and crossbows for trouble-free sighting in cold weather. Most red dot scopes operate using larger batteries that are less effected by cold temperatures than the typical lighted sight pin.
Late-season bow hunting isn’t without its problems, but taking into consideration that you’ll have the woods to yourself, deer are once again making predicable moves, and getting hunting permission is a snap, why not give fourth-quarter bow hunting a try?